Last weekend, after V and I had attended three different Olympic football matches, my sister asked me if I regretted not going the professional route with my own football skills.
From being very young, I was a football maniac. My whole life was football. I used to have a red transistor radio and would listen to the football matches under my covers at night. I didn’t care who was playing, I just liked listening to the commentary.
I played at school, at home, against a wall, in my bedroom (sorry mum) and whenever I got a chance. At primary school, still in the 1970’s, a PE teacher called Mr Lee asked me to play in the second 11 against the second 11 from another school. Our first 11 was all boys and 10 of the second 11 were boys. I was thrilled. At 9 years old I got to play in my first competitive match. I still remember I made a few good touches and made a particularly classy run down the right wing. The boys from the other team patted me on the back afterwards and said I’d surprised them with how good I was. At the end of the game I thanked Mr Lee for letting me play. He said I needed to work on my heading. He was a class act – thanks Mr Lee. When I left primary school, Mrs Stilli, the Deputy Head gave me a note saying she hoped I made the football team at Shawfield school.
When I went to middle school at 10 years old I was ridiculed by the girls for playing football with the boys. The boys accepted me with open arms, but the girls gave me such a hard time. If you can’t beat them, join them. My friend Jo and I got together a girls football team and since the PE teachers refused to coach us, Mr Rawlings, an English teacher, agreed to oversee the team. He didn’t know the first thing about football but gave his time after school and drove us in his VW Beetle to matches. Our kits were the boy’s old ones – misshapen, stained and very smelly. We wanted our own kits so we organised a sponsored dance and I spoke to the manager of the local estate agents who agreed to be our sponsor. We raised the money, and our new blue and white kits arrived emblazoned with our shirt sponsor. We were officially footballers.
Some days later, while still on a high, I was told to go to the Headmaster’s office. When I got there, the Head of PE and the Headmaster were there and they told me that they had cleared it with the shirt sponsor and the kits would be shared by the boys and girls. I was livid. Why, I asked, after all the work we had done with no help, were the boys now being given the share of our kit? Why wasn’t Mr Rawlings in the meeting too? And why had the boys not been asked to help raise money too if they were to share the kits? If we had raised more money, we could have had more of the same kit! I was told I had a poor attitude and wouldn’t be allowed to be on a school team (the one I had introduced) if my attitude didn’t change. So I quit the team right there and then. I was 12 years old and stood up for what I believed.
Was it a mistake? The wrong choice? I can say I did what I believed was right but the truth is, it changed my football life. I had been told by male coaches that I was as good if not better than many boys they had coached. Boy’s parents came to me after matches and said they wished I could play on the first 11. But now, I wasn’t even on a team. I was angry, betrayed and heart-broken.
When I went to upper school I expected there to be a girl’s team, but in truth there was barely a PE programme worth mentioning. The overweight, coffee chugging, cigarette smoking female PE teachers were useless and sent us on cross-country runs every single lesson, while they stayed behind in the cool office, and the male teachers were pervs who used to endlessly make us do trampoline so they could comment on some girl’s breasts. They point-blank refused to let me play football with the boys (many of whom I had gone through school with so knew I was pretty good). My dad wrote a letter threatening to take them to the European Court of Human Rights for not letting me play but to no avail.
I wanted to be a PE teacher and women’s football coach until I got to upper school and then it all ended – I changed my mind ( I don’t drink coffee or smoke so wouldn’t have fit in!) and I went a different route in life. My life has been amazing and I really wouldn’t change it for anything, but now the Olympics are on us and I see the (World Champion) Japanese women’s team being made to fly economy while the Japanese men’s team get first class and I am reminded of the kit sharing episode. If the women refused to play because of it then they wouldn’t be here for the Olympics, and they would miss out on arguably the greatest experience of their lives. Sometimes doing what is right is actually just plain wrong. We are almost 30 years on from the kit debacle and I still feel a sense of sadness.